Away from the hustle and bustle of the main venue, a fringe meeting near the Conservative Party conference gave the waste management sector one of its first opportunities to quiz the new minister for waste.
The event, which was hosted by Policy Exchange and Suez, saw environment minister Therese Coffey suggest that landfill tax had “stopped being a sufficient penalty” to incentivise the worst performing councils to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.
She proposed that additional steps may be needed to address the plateauing recycling rates. She also said that she wanted to challenge the claims of many urban authorities that they could not get residents to recycle more.
She added that she was “surprised that taxpayers… seem to be happy to keep spending money on landfill tax when councils complain they haven’t got enough money to run services”.
In response to a comment from Suez external affairs director Gev Eduljee, Coffey played down suggestions that the tax may be scrapped, stating that she was “not aware of any submissions to [her] to get rid of landfill tax”.
The 20-year-old tax, introduced to ensure the UK met its obligations under the Landfill Directive, is a charge by weight on the amount of refuse deposited at a landfill site on top of normal landfill rates.
Coffey also indicated that the Government was not considering radical changes to environmental policy following Brexit or cutting recycling targets: “In the entire EU debate, there was no mandate for changing big things on the environment.”
However, she said the British people may want to see some changes following Brexit. In particular, she argued that EU directives were often too ready to classify by-products as waste. Overall, she called for greater consideration of key principles and an outcomes-based approach.
She added that the UK shared Germany’s concerns around the circular economy proposals from the European Commission and the definitions and classifications suggested.
“Coffey indicated that the government was not considering radical changes to environment policy following brexit or cutting recycling targets: ‘in the entire EU debate, there was no mandate for change”
Discussing the 25-year environment plan being developed by Defra, she said the framework would be out “by the end of November”. Since coming to her post, she said, the focus of the plan had been shifted make it more holistic. She also expressed her hope that it would utilise the language of natural capital.
Responding to a question from the audience, Coffey dismissed suggestions of streamlining the classification and categorisation of waste streams to ensure uniformity across councils. She argued that councils knew their own communities best, and were best equipped to categorise waste in ways that encouraged local recycling.
The event was chaired by Policy Exchange head of environment and energy Richard Howard, who called for the integration of waste management into an industrial strategy. He also reiterated concerns that the different parts of the waste management sector were not speaking to each other. This was limiting investment, hesuggested. Later, he said that the European Commission seemed too focused on the proportion of household waste recycled as opposed to the issue of waste minimisation.
Also speaking on the panel, Eduljee noted success in moving waste away from landfills but noted that sufficient capacity to process this waste for recycling did not yet exist. He also raised concern about the saturation of export markets for waste products. Reshoring the material could help tackle resource security and create value and jobs, he said, while consumption in general needed to be more circular.
WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover called for fundamental changes to patterns of consumption, arguing that it was important to build a UK repair economy to maintain the full lifecycle of a product. The UK was unique in being able to finance such schemes, he argued.
Meanwhile, Mark Dempsey, sustainability manager at computer giant Hewlett-Packard, discussed the experience of embedding circularity into his company’s business model. Detailing the way in which a recycling programme had been used to create new electronic products, he said that technologies such as 3D printing also provided an economic opportunity for the repair economy.
Dempsey also argued that the durability of products should be better rewarded.
He went on to stress the importance of ensuring market forces were allowed to control the reprocessing system, raising concern about the impact of monopolisation and price fixing in other markets. He also emphasised the need to cut red tape.
Despite Coffey’s best efforts, the sense from industry speakers and the audience was one of confusion and some trepidation. Though they were keen to stress that Brexit could be an opportunity to go further than EU legislation or to ensure better implementation, the panellists noted the uncertainty created by the referendum result.
The event underscored a need for greater engagement of industry by the Government, and highlighted the potential impact that political instability could have for the future of the waste and resources sector.
Policy Connect’s ones to watch at Westminster
- Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (chair: Neil Parish MP, Conservative)
- Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) (chair: Mary Creagh MP, Labour)
- Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (chair: Ian Wright MP, Labour)
- Exiting the EU Committee (chair: Hilary Benn MP, Labour)
- International Trade Committee (chair: Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, SNP)
- House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Select sub- Committees (chair: Lord Teverson, Lib Dem)
- Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, Conservative, former secretary of state for the environment and co-chair of All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) reports on remanufacturing and waste exports
- Nick Hurd MP, Conservative, minister of state for climate change and industry and has been engaged with APSRG
- Rebecca Pow MP, Conservative, EAC member and officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group
- Peter Aldous MP, Conservative, EAC member and APSRG officer
- Rt Hon Anna Soubry MP, Conservative, former minister of state for business and enterprise
- Mary Creagh MP, Labour, EAC chair
- Rachael Maskell MP, Labour, shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs l Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Labour, shadow minister for energy and climate change and co-chair of APSRG
- Barry Gardiner MP, Labour, shadow secretary of state for international state and shadow minister for energy and climate change
- Chi Onwurah MP, Labour, shadow minister for industrial strategy
- Keir Starmer MP, Labour, shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union
- Barry Sheerman MP, Labour, chair of APSRG
- Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour, formershadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Food Waste Group
- Callum McCaig MP, SNP, shadow SNP Westminster group leader for energy and climate change and advisory board member of Carbon Connect
- Stephen Gethins MP, SNP, shadow SNP spokesperson for Brexit and member of the APPCCG
- Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party, party co-leader, EAC member and chair of the APPCCG